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Bob Brookmeyer New Art Orchestra: Waltzing With Zoe

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With personnel changes, discipline and the familiarization that comes with time and hard work, Bob Brookmeyer has molded his New Art Orchestra into an ideal vehicle for the profundities and felicities of his mature writing. Over the past several years, his skills as a composer have converged in a creative cauldron in which he melds all that he knows and all that he feels about music and life. He has the spark of inspiration and the technical means to translate his knowledge and emotion into music with specific gravity that relates to the seriousness of our times.

“American Tragedy,” Brookmeyer’s meditation on the United States in the 21st century, is a lamentation deep enough to qualify as threnody, the ancient Greek name for funeral music. These new compositions also explore joy (“Seesaw,” a drums-and-orchestra conversation), exhilaration (“K.P. ’94”), tenderness (“Sweetie,” “For Maria”), a sense of wonder (“Child at Play,” “Fireflies”) and the rewards of risk-taking (“Waltzing With Zoe”). It has been a long time since Brookmeyer wrote, as he once said, “music to make your teeth hurt.” Although he uses plenty of advanced compositional techniques here, this music is accessible and deeply centered in the most profound human responses.

On four pieces, Brookmeyer solos on valve trombone with the virtuosity that has made him for decades the world’s leading player of that instrument. John Hollenbeck is impressive throughout for his sensitive drumming. Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans sustains creativity in nearly continual soloing on the 10-minute “Fireflies.” The band, 18 pieces and mostly European, is magnificent.

Brookmeyer’s arranging and playing are essential elements of Gerry Mulligan’s 1960 classic Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard, a desert island album. His “Body and Soul” chart and his structure for the head arrangement of “Let My People Be” could be called highlights, but the entire album-every arrangement, every solo-is a highlight. Brookmeyer’s writing is matched by Mulligan’s on “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Al Cohn’s on “Blueport” and “Lady Chatterly’s Mother” and Johnny Mandel’s stunning work on “Black Nightgown.”

Brookmeyer was at or near the peak of his use of speechlike smears, growls, rips and slurs, effects he used not just for laughs but in the service of cogency. Much the same can be said of Clark Terry, who was in many ways Brookmeyer’s trumpet counterpart and spiritual soulmate. Mulligan is infectious in his exchanges with Terry and magnificent in his solo on “Come Rain or Come Shine.” There are other superior solos from trombonist Willie Dennis and tenor saxophonist Jim Reider, vital members of the New York scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s, now all but forgotten. Bassist Bill Crow and drummer Mel Lewis drove the band the way Phil Hill drove his Ferrari.

Why it took Verve so long to get this gem onto CD is a mystery. For that matter, since recycling and reissuing seem to be the economic order of the day at the major labels, a comprehensive box set of all of Verve’s Mulligan CJB material would seem too obvious to have to suggest.